Office comradery is an important part of the workplace ecosystem. Not only does it create a more pleasant working environment, but it also perpetuates a culture of collaboration and support.
However, according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, so-called ‘pub banter and jokes with colleagues’ can swiftly veer into sexual harassment – even if this is unintended.
The commission outlined concerns in a report to 400 major companies which stated that unwanted jokes and even facial expressions can amount to unacceptable behaviour – regardless of how they were intended. This ‘unwanted contact’ can also include office pranks, social media contact and mimicry, according to the report.
Spearheaded by the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s Chair, Rebecca Hilsenrath, the widely-shared report was drafted in the wake of the #MeToo movement, and was designed to emphasise how essential it is to ensure that staff can come to work without fear of being harassed or abused by their colleagues. Companies are advised to follow a series of steps and technical guidance which the EHRC hopes will eventually 'become statutory guidance enforceable by law'.
“Sexual harassment offences can include suggestive looks, staring or leering, as well as intrusive questions about a person's sex life,” Hilsenrath stated in the document, whilst warnings against spreading sexual rumours, unwelcome hugging, massaging, kissing and touching also featured.
She also stated that employers will be held responsible for any actions which take place within the course of employment, including after-work drinks in the pub, Christmas parties or leaving dos. Those who felt like the victim of harassment were advised to take seven steps that could be used as evidence in tribunals.
Hilsenrath's report stated that firms must ‘step up action against bad behaviour’, whilst research reportedly found that three-quarters of workers have experienced sexual harassment, with the watchdog claiming it 'is pervasive in contexts as diverse as Hollywood and Westminster'.
The letter added: “It's been two years since #MeToo forced sexual harassment to the top of the agenda. We've seen some employers wake up, take this on board and start to make the difference... But we need others to follow suit. The issue is not going to go away and if we are going to create working environments where no one is ever made to feel unsafe or threatened, then we need a dramatic shift in workplace cultures.”